For this year’s Being Human festival, the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) is putting on a free event in London in partnership with Islington’s Little Angel Theatre and puppeteer-storyteller Tinka Slavicek. Making Medusa, which takes place on 17 November at Little Angel Studios, will be a family-friendly crafting and storytelling event. In his post Dr Emma Bridges, ICS public engagement fellow, provides a very short introduction to the legend and suggests some places to look for further information about the millennia-old story.
Like all myths, the story of Medusa is one that has changed over time. In Hesiod’s early ancient Greek poem Theogony (dated to around 700 BCE), she is one of three sisters, the Gorgons, who are so terrifying that those who look on them turn to stone. Of these three monsters, only Medusa is mortal – Perseus kills her by cutting off her head.
In a later version of this story, by the poet Pindar (who was composing his works in the early fifth-century BCE, the emphasis is again on the heroism of her killer, who carries Medusa’s snake-haired head with him to inflict ‘stony death’ on those who see it. Pindar tells the story of how the music of the flute was invented by the goddess Athena as an imitation of the other Gorgons’ lament for the death of their sister.
Hundreds of years later the Roman poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, written in around 8 CE, imagined a backstory for Medusa – Ovid’s version is one whose disturbing elements are often forgotten in retellings which focus more on the figure of Perseus than on the experience of Medusa herself. Rather than presenting her as having been born a monster, this poet represents her as initially a beautiful woman, the object of male desire. In Ovid’s version she is raped in the temple of the virgin goddess Minerva (the Roman equivalent of Athena) by the sea god Neptune (known as Poseidon in the Greek tradition).
Minerva, horrified by the act of desecration in her sacred space, takes out her anger on Medusa instead of punishing the perpetrator of the act. Medusa’s beautiful hair is transformed by Athena into horrible snakes. The goddess Athena is often represented in classical art as wearing an ‘aegis’, a breastplate or shield featuring the head of a Gorgon; Ovid’s story also invents a mythical origin for this emblem.
- You can read English translations of these ancient Greek and Latin versions of Medusa’s story by clicking on the highlighted links here: Hesiod’s Theogony; Pindar’s Pythian 10; Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Gorgons like Medusa appear in Greek art from very early on – they are often shown on painted pottery and in sculpture as terrifying figures with a wide ‘smiling’ mouth, protruding tongue, fangs and sometimes curly hair, although this is not always depicted as having snake heads. Other ancient images show Perseus in the act of beheading Medusa.
Ever since ancient times Medusa has continued to inspire artists to create their own versions of her story – some have focused more on the heroism of Perseus as he kills her, as is the case with Cellini’s bronze sculpture Perseus with the head of Medusa. Other artists have looked more closely at the figure of Medusa herself – Caravaggio and Rubens, for example, both painted gruesome images of her snaky head, sure to horrify the viewer.
More recently Ray Harryhausen’s 1981 fantasy film Clash of the Titans brought a monstrous Medusa to life. He imagined her for the first time with a serpentine tail as well as snaky hair, and this image is one which has influenced other contemporary versions of Medusa, including even a Lego minifigure!
Not all artists have represented her as a monster, however. Harriet Hosmer’s 1854 bust of Medusa, for example, focuses not on the horrific image of snake-haired Medusa but instead on the beauty and pathos of her story. Luxury fashion brand Versace also adopted a Medusa-figure as its logo, the image adapted from a version of an ancient mosaic.
If you’d like to find out more about some of the ways in which Medusa has found her way into images and stories over the centuries, here are a few free-to-access online resources to get you started:
- In 2018 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition with the title Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art. This article by Allison Meier takes a look at some of the exhibits and explores the story behind them. Meanwhile this post by Nicole Saldarriaga at Classical Wisdom Weekly provides a useful introduction to some of the ways in which the Medusa myth has evolved over time.
- Curtis Dozier’s 2015 article in Eidolon takes a look at the ways in which the juxtaposition of beautiful woman and dangerous monster are combined in contemporary images of Medusa. You can also read a recent feminist take on the story of Medusa’s rape by Poseidon here; and this piece by Elizabeth Johnston looks at some of the ways in which the image of Medusa has been used as a way of criticizing powerful women.
- If you’re interested in ancient monsters more generally, our Royal Holloway colleague Liz Gloyn’s new book, Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture, investigates some of the ways in which monsters from the ancient world have found their way into contemporary media like films and television series. You can read the introduction of Liz’s book for free here. Liz has also written on her blog about a recent reinterpretation of Medusa, in which the singer Rihanna was styled with snakes for hair in a photoshoot for GQ magazine. On the ICS blog there’s also an earlier blogpost in which Liz talks to Catherine Baker, whose Medusa story features in our Making Monsters anthology of stories and essays (ed. Emma Bridges and Djibril al-Ayad).
- This animation created by the Panoply Vase Animation Project brings to life the story of Medusa using images from several Greek painted pots, including one featuring an image of a Gorgon.
- Meanwhile, if you’re interested in taking a look for yourself at some of the ways in which Medusa has featured in art over the centuries, it’s worth browsing the Iconographic Database hosted by our colleagues over at the Warburg Institute. A search for ‘Medusa’ reveals a wealth of different images; entering ‘Gorgon’ into the search box produces even more results.
We’ll be sharing more snippets about Medusa over on Twitter in the days leading up to our event. You can join the conversation by searching for #MakingMedusa; do share with us your own favourite versions of Medusa by using the hashtag. For more information about the Being Human event, and to book a free space, visit the booking page.